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Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:41 pm on 11th February 2020.

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Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Labour, Enfield, Southgate 2:41 pm, 11th February 2020

First, I pay tribute to those who have worked so hard to bring the Bill before Parliament. Marie McCourt’s formidable campaign for Helen’s law in memory of her daughter, Helen McCourt, is the reason we stand here today for the Bill’s Second Reading. Helen McCourt was murdered in 1988. Her body has never been found. Helen’s murderer was released from prison last week and has provided no information about the whereabouts of her body. The unimaginable pain caused to Helen’s family and other victims of such unthinkable crimes is only compounded when they are denied the dignity of laying their loved ones to rest. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Conor McGinn for his support for Helen’s family with his campaign.

Secondly, I would like to highlight the case of a serious sex offender whose non-disclosure of information about their living victims will cause untold distress to a community for years to come. Vanessa George abused multiple children at the Little Ted’s nursery, where she worked in Plymouth. She was sentenced in December 2009 after being charged with seven offences, including sexual assault and making, possessing and distributing indecent images of children. She was given an indeterminate sentence for reasons of public protection to serve a minimum of seven years for her crimes against toddlers and babies.

Vanessa George was released in September 2019 with a number of conditions, but to this day she has not revealed the names of the toddlers and babies she abused. My hon. Friend Luke Pollard campaigned for such offences to be included in the Bill. He also strongly objected to her release from prison, as he believes, rightly, that her non-disclosure shows no remorse. The nursery where she carried out her horrendous crimes, and the wider community that have been so profoundly affected by her actions, fall within my hon. Friend’s constituency. As the identities of all of Vanessa George’s living child victims are not known, they will not be able to access the emotional and psychological support services that they need as a result of the crimes that she committed against them.

Vanessa George’s conditions of release state where she cannot live and work, and that she cannot use the internet, but they are almost impossible to regulate. More profoundly, affected families were not informed that she would be released and only found out through social media and local news. Put simply, victims and their families who have already suffered psychological harm should not be put through the additional emotional trauma caused by offenders who refuse to disclose information about their victims. When offenders do refuse to disclose information, it is right that they are viewed as still posing a threat to the public.

My party supports the Bill as it will put into statute already established guidance for the Parole Board when making decisions about the suitability of serious offenders for release. The Parole Board’s role is to protect the public by carrying out risk assessments on prisoners to decide whether they can be released safely back into the community. The decisions the Parole Board makes can be life-changing for victims and prisoners, so we must never underestimate the gravity of the conclusions that the panel members come to. The Parole Board’s guidance advises panel members to consider any failure or refusal by an offender to disclose the whereabouts of their victim’s remains when assessing suitability for release. It is also established Parole Board practice to consider the non-disclosure of relevant information by offenders in cases involving living victims. That guidance and practice will now become law under the Bill. It does not change the statutory release test, but rather the Parole Board must consider the non-disclosure of information when applying the release test and making its assessments.

The Bill puts into statute two requirements for the Parole Board. The first is in relation to offenders convicted of murder or manslaughter. The Parole Board will be legally required to consider whether the offender has refused to reveal the details about the location of the victim’s body. The second requirement is in relation to offenders convicted of taking or making indecent images of children. The Parole Board will be legally required to consider whether the offender has refused to reveal details about the identities of the victims.

Some will be disappointed and question whether the Bill’s provisions will make any practical difference, given the guidance that is already followed by the Parole Board. Some may believe that we need a policy of no body, no parole, such as that in force in parts of Australia. As many will know, the Bill is a variation on a ten-minute rule Bill tabled in 2016 by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North. His Bill proposed an assumption against eligibility for parole in cases of a convicted offender’s non-disclosure about their victim’s remains. However, it is still right that the Bill is before us and will be put into statute. It has taken over three years, two general elections and two Prime Ministers for the Government to offer their own variation of Helen’s law.

This is a simple Bill, but one that we wholeheartedly welcome. However, as it relates to the release of offenders guilty of some of the most serious crimes imaginable and, according to the Government’s explanatory notes, the consequences of causing additional distress to victims and their families, it is concerning that the Government should have taken so long on such a serious matter. It suggests that the Government still have a long way to go on their commitment to putting victims’ views at the heart of the criminal justice system.

There is much to be done to support victims. Before becoming a shadow Justice Minister, I sat on the Justice Committee for over two years. In 2018, we raised serious questions about the transparency of the Parole Board’s decision making, about the lack of information given to victims and about the lack of emotional and practical support that is available to help victims through the whole process. We raised questions in particular about victims being kept up to date with decisions about the release of prisoners.

The Victims’ Commissioner recently reported on victims’ levels of satisfaction and found they were less satisfied than ever before that their views are heard and taken into consideration. That is no surprise to us, given the distress caused to victims in the cases that I have already spoken about. When victims choose to present their victim support statement to the Parole Board panels, they are agreeing to take part in an incredibly stressful, upsetting and emotional experience as they seek to uphold justice. We raised concerns that not enough is being done to give victims the practical and emotional support they need during these oral hearings. In the two serious and well-known cases that I outlined at the start of my speech, victims have voiced their anxiety, distress and frustration at the parole process.

In another well-known case, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley refused to disclose the location of the body of Keith Bennett, the young boy they murdered in 1964. Keith’s mother, Winnie Johnson, tirelessly made the case to keep Ian Brady from being released into the community, unless he revealed information about the whereabouts of Keith’s body. Winnie was denied the right to give her son a dignified burial and to lay him to rest, and she died before ever finding her son.

I know that society can never fully take away the grief and distress of victims of serious crimes, but the Government should be putting every effort into alleviating some of the pain and making the parole process at least bearable. Years of cuts undermine the hard work of staff across the criminal justice system and specialist support services. As I mentioned, the decisions the Parole Board takes are life-changing for victims. So, to conclude, it is clear that, although Labour Members welcome this Bill, we will not allow the Government to be complacent, either in their duty to protect the public or in their duty to support victims who are already suffering such immeasurable pain.